Book Review: Shoe Dog – Phil Knight

Nike was born from a passion for running, fuelled by an addictive thrill of winning with the finishing line yet unknown.

by Karen Lau

Senior Investment Manager

Phil Knight’s constant itch to push Nike further jumps from the pages with Knight’s rhetoric of “grow or die”.  Even the ‘swoosh’ logo gives an impression of a company wanting to leave competitors eating dust. However, the road to success was a path fraught with challenges for Knight.

In the book, Shoe Dogs are described as “people who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes”.  To me, that summed up the grit and determination epitomised by Phil Knight and his team. Along with trusted friends and partners, including Bill Bowerman, his former running coach and Bob Woodell, a former runner who was paralysed after an accident, they pushed on and took risks for the love of the company.  The camaraderie amongst the “Buttfaces”, as they referred to themselves, is both endearing and ironic; the founding fathers of this sportswear company included a paralysed man, two obese guys and a chain smoker. All members of the team played their part in the success of Blue Ribbon, which grew into the Nike we know today.

Phil Knight flipped between his highs and lows with energy; zig-zagging from the doubling of sales and the constant growth to brushes with the FBI, the court cases, the self-recrimination and reflecting on his regret at not spending time with his sons.  Clearly there is no reward without sacrifice.

The book divided opinion in our book club discussion as some members saw Phil Knight as an arrogant and selfish individual - teetering on unethical when he stole strategic plans from his Japanese partners and employed spies. Steve Johnson, his passionate salesman was constantly writing letters to Knight for reassurance and affirmation, but the letters were rarely read, let alone answered.  However, others saw a single minded introvert who just wanted to do what he loved, with the people he cared about.  Either way, this seems to be an authentic report of his chaotic life.

Always on the brink of insolvency, Phil Knight begged and borrowed money from the bank, distributors, investors, family and friends for support.  When walking out of the front door of an employee’s parent’s house with their life savings of $8,000 in 1970 he asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’  “Because,” Woodell’s mother said, “if you can’t trust the company your son is working for, then who can you trust?”  Woodell’s mother was richly rewarded for her loyalty ten years later with $1.6m.  A good endorsement for long term investing.

Shoe Dog is a brutally honest depiction of how one man’s passion, drive and sacrifice can lead to the creation of one of the most successful brands we know today. Knight teaches us that recognising your weaknesses enables you to be strong as part of the team, being honest with investors can open opportunities … and that there is hope for us introverts!

The JM Finn  Investment Book Club was convened in the hope that, month by month, some of the wisdom of investing gurus such as Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger, and Mohnish Pabrai might rub off on the participants eager selves.

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